The fun of canyoning
Face your fears in Wanaka
As I sit in the back of the Deep Canyon shuttle bus, gazing out the window at Wanaka’s spectacular mountain scenery, I feel a sudden rush of nerves about what I’ve signed myself up for. I’ve never been canyoning before, nor do I know anyone that has. A quick Wikipedia search before booking had told me that it involves abseiling, sliding, scrambling and jumping down waterfalls, which, for your average thrill-seeker, probably sounds like brilliant fun. However, for someone like myself - a self-designated coat carrier at theme parks - it sounded more than slightly terrifying. Dan, our head guide, does his best to put my nerves at rest. Not only does Deep Canyon have a flawless safety record, he tells me, but it is also the oldest and most established canyon guiding company in the country. It was set up in 1994 by veteran kiwi outdoorsman Dave Vass, who aside from being an award-winning climber and mountaineer, was also one of the pioneers of the New Zealand canyoning movement. Vaas still owns and runs the company, however, now in his 50s, he’s more inclined to take a backseat on the day-to-day operations and primarily serves as a supervisor and knowledge bank for the younger guides. Step in Dan ‘Chucky’ Clearwater, the current general manager and our guide for the day. Although Dave’s left some pretty big shoes to fill, as acting president of the NZ Canyoning Association and author of the country’s only canyoning guidebook, I’d say Dan was more than up to the task. As our bus pulls up to the base of the Niger Stream, the river that has carved out the colossal canyon we are about to descend, I play down my fears and re-assure myself that I am in highly competent hands. We make a quick ascent up the hillside to the canyon entrance, taking in the breathtaking views of Mt Aspiring National Park on the way. Before we begin though, Dan gives us all a quick abseiling lesson and provides full waterproof/ protective gear for us to wear. To my relief, no-one else on the tour has been canyoning before either and all look just as daft as me in their wetsuit/ helmet ensemble. All suited and booted and fully debriefed, it was now time for us to begin the descent.
As we come in to sight of ‘Big Nige’, the 24m waterfall that is to be our first abseil of the day, any confidence I had felt earlier in the bus quickly makes way for sheer terror again. “I’m not going to kid you,” Dan tells us, “this one can get pretty scary. We’re going to lower you down straight through the waterfall so there’s going to be a lot of water crashing down on your head. Make sure to keep looking down and if you do lose your footing and find yourself dangling, just remember one thing ... there’s only one way to the bottom!” Feeling ever so mildly comforted, I step up first and prepare to meet my maker.
Within seconds of coming face-to-face with Big Nige, Dan has pushed me off the rock face and started spinning me round like a sock in a washing machine. As I sit there dangling mid-air, water thundering down on my helmet, the world rapidly closing in on me, I have to take a deep breath to pull myself back together again.
Remembering Dan’s advice, I set about finding my footing and, after a few failed attempts battling the raging current, I’m back in position and making my way down. With about as much grace as a drunken uncle on a wedding dancefloor, I slowly complete the descent and by the time I’ve reached the bottom and unclipped myself I’m absolutely buzzing. What a rush!
Eager to see what’s in store next, I split off with one of the other guides - a long-haired, self-proclaimed “gypsy outdoorsman” called Chris. With his assistance, I take on a few more waterfalls and grow slowly more confident in my abseiling abilities.
Just when I’m starting to master things, Chris announces that we’re ditching the rope. “Just slide straight down this one, bro”, he says, “Trust me, you’ll be fine.” I look down at the 10m near-vertical polished rock face in disbelief. Surely he’s winding me up?! With a bit of encouragement, he’s ushering me into position and the next thing you know I’m free-falling towards the water below, screaming my lungs out.
The rest of the day is made up of numerous other rock slides, zip-lines, abseils and cliff jumps, each completely unique with revealing names like The Corkscrew, The Toilet Bowl, and
The Buttclencher. The grand finale is an optional 7m cliff jump, which a few of our group opted out of. Not me though: I was feeling like Rambo at this point, without fear and inhibition, and launched myself off without hesitation. What a way to end the day! Then it’s all back to base-camp for a late-lunch and a good old laugh with the rest of the group about who was the biggest daredevil and who the biggest wuss before jumping back on the bus and heading back to Wanaka. By this point, all the adrenaline and physical exertion had started to catch up on us, so we treated ourselves to a well-earned beer and a bite in town. We had definitely earned it.
“By the time I’ve reached the bottom and unclipped myself I’m absolutely buzzing. What a rush!”